Sailing the ‘Pastime’ versus Sailing the ‘Sport’. 1

A flurry of pundits have weighed in again on the old argument of professionalism and sailing, triggered by an interview with ‘Saving Sailing’ author Nicholas Hayes. It’s a debate that will rage on for a while yet, and while it does, sailing is damaged a little more by it’s own stakeholders.

The statement that has offended people like Olympic sailor Andrew Campbell highlights the differences between those who see sailing as a nice outdoor pursuit for the family, and those who are driven by competition. In an interview with US Sailing, Hayes is quoted as saying:

Seriously, let’s start here: sailing is only a sport when sailors race. It is better defined as time spent on the water with family or friends. Racing is just one format, and it represents about 20% of sailing (in terms of time.)

Secondly, I like to race, and I like to take home a flag when I do… but the majority of sailors know that a race is meaningless except in the friendships that it secures and the memories that it makes. This perspective is shared by 99% of sailors, and applies to 99% of starts. Frankly, pros have no place in the vast majority of sailing as it is done today, and I don’t see that changing much.

I go to lengths in the book to explain how sailing as a profession doesn’t sync well with sailing as a pastime. I’ve come to conclude that if someone is able to convince someone else to finance their fun, so be it… but the progress in technique or skill isn’t worth the costs in the whole. I hope your readers will consider the evidence that I present and decide for themselves.

Hayes has spent a lot of time talking to people about sailing, so it is easy to take these comments out of context. Unlike this commentator, he speaks with the collective wisdom of thousands of people who have expressed an opinion on the subject. Hayes openly admits that his book is not so much about sailing, as about reclaiming time, in particular pastime, and as such is aimed at a particular book demographic.

Naturally, this site is about the commercial and professional side of the sport. Having watched sports like Rugby and Golf wrestle with the amateur / professional debate to come out stronger, I believe that sailing without the elite level is just a quaint hobby, for a decreasing percentage of the population.

Hayes says that sailing is only a sport when sailors race, but discounts beating the next boat in the flotilla to port as racing. My favourite quote in relation to this, which I have used on many occasions in this forum, is “nobody knows when people started racing automobiles, but we think it was when the built the second one.” People love to compete. Even if it is for a couple of bucks on a golf shot or a pint at the end of the day. Without competition, a sailboat is just a floating caravan.

But that’s not the argument. The argument seems to be that people of the same level can compete, but it is somehow wrecks the experience to have professionals in the mix. I am not a professional sailor, but I am not ready to promote the idea that sailing should be accepted more like knitting or sitting down to a nice lunch. It’s a sport – a great sport, one that offers more than most sports on every level.  In fact, sailing is one sport, where an amateur can beat a professional on any given day.

Here’s an example, that may or may not be useful, but it supports where I am coming from. I would love to surf next to Laird Hamilton or windsurf next to Jason Polakow. They are professionals, I am not. But they are the people who I have idolised as those at the top of the activity that I want to get better at. There is a massive business in pro/am golf. Thousands of amateurs line up every week against professionals. I can’t imagine that anyone would ever write a book suggesting that Golf return to a nice walk as a way of saving it, but then golf doesn’t need saving.

The debate needs to happen, but it needs to be less of an ‘us and them’ argument. The pastime of sailing and the sport of sailing need to come together in an understanding that sailing, including windsurfing, kitesurfing and all its other forms, needs to compete for the free-time of active people. More professionals, that are visible and idolised can only help that process. I would rather have people take up sailing because they wanted to do the thing that their hero did rather than people who didn’t take it up because they are never going to be the best.

“Saving Sailing” is a well thought through book that should be read by all interested in the subject, but statements like “Frankly, pros have no place in the vast majority of sailing as it is done today,” are not helpful in any context.

As always, comments are welcome…

  • joannekolius

    Today my husband and I spent some time discussing the comments that have been made in recent days referring to Hayes’ book.

    Professional sailors, or at least the one in my house, evolved as a professional because of their passion for sailing. My husband learned how to sail at the age of 5 because his sisters learned how at a Girl Scout camp. Then throughout his childhood he sailed and raced with his family. It was a family pastime and a family sport pushed by his father. Throughout our years together he has told me countless stories about growing up sailing. Wonderful and inspiring stories. We have boxes of pictures from his childhood that show his family sailing together. It was also during his childhood that he developed the skills and techniques needed to become a successful competitor in the sport of sailing.

    Throughout most of his adult life he has been considered a professional sailor and for whatever reason being a professional brings on a curious debate. It is upsetting that some individuals believe that professionals are “killing the sport of sailboat racing” and frankly I do not know how to comment on such a naïve and simple-minded point of view. David Fuller is correct…sailing is damaged a little more by its own stakeholders while this debate continues.
    However, I would like to say that I am sure there is little doubt that Nicholas Hayes’ book is meaningful and I do plan on reading the book sometime soon, however in response to Mr. Hayes’ comment “how sailing as a profession doesn’t sync well with sailing as a pastime.” I respectfully disagree. In my opinion, John Kolius and countless other professional like him are the perfect example of how the pastime of sailing syncs well with the sport of sailing. And by the way…sailing is a pastime in our house.